NEW PORT RICHEY — It has been a successful year for Trinity Tae Kwon Do and its young do-jang master, Rafael Rodriguez.
The 24-year old instructor took a team of 10 competitors to the Junior Olympics in San Jose from June 20-25 and returned with nine medals, an impressive number considering the size of many of the other teams.
"The competition team is a matter of commitment," Rodriguez said. "Our kids work incredibly hard and they were rewarded with medals at the national tournament. I was talking to people who were part of 30-person teams and went home with nothing. For a school as young as ours to do that well, I'm very proud."
So dominant were his students that Rodriguez had to take a neutral stance during one semifinal, as two of his students faced off for the chance to spar for a national championship. Veronica Latore, 12, and Melisa Kurpejovic, 13, battled it out in the semifinals. While Melisa accidentally sprained Veronica's hand in the fight, the latter came out victorious. She emerged from the finals with a silver medal.
"It was tough to face a teammate, but being able to make it to the final round was really a big achievement for me," Veronica said. "That final was really intense, and I learned from it that I just need to go my hardest. I'm looking forward to next year, because I came so close so I know I can do it."
Before the students could make a run at being national champions, they had to qualify for the tournament at the Sunshine State Games, an annual Olympic-style tournament that includes a wide range of sports. Fifteen kids from Trinity Tae Kwon Do made the trip to that tournament, and the school came home with 53 medals.
"The level we're competing at is pretty high, and we're winning," Rodriguez said. "The majority of our kids won gold at the Sunshine State Games this year, so we're right up there for the state of Florida. I think the key has been the way the kids have come together as a family and supported each other."
The success of the students has impressed parents and provided the inspiration some needed to get behind not only their kids, but also the school, which opened in 2008. Eric Johnson, who has three children taking classes at Trinity Tae Kwon Do, has seen his kids pick up the disciplines over the last year and attain near-instant success.
"We're very new to the sport, but we're firm believers in Master Rodriguez," Johnson said. "He teaches a very hard work ethic and pushes the kids. They really look up to him, and when they don't succeed you can tell it bothers them to feel like they let him down."
From the sidelines, parents have seen Rodriguez push their kids to their limits, but more than just work ethic and discipline have made the young master successful. Johnson believes that Rodriguez's age is a major contributing factor to the success of the academy.
"I think it really helps that he is young," Johnson said. "He can relate to the kids very well and they want to listen to him. When he wants them to do something, he can demonstrate it himself, unlike some of the older masters who can't do it anymore."
Students around the academy rave about Rodriguez, both as a person and coach. He serves as a mentor and a major source of motivation for his students, who long to make him proud.
"He's just a really funny and caring person," Melisa said. "He's been really great to work with. I've never wanted another teacher in my three years in the sport, and he's let me start assisting him during instruction, which is really cool. We all really look up to him around here."
The academy has grown so fast that Rodriguez recently relocated to a new facility on Ridge Road, one that gives him one of the largest spaces for a do-jang on the Gulf Coast. To him, the work has become so rewarding, he can't help but feel good about the growth of his academy.
"I'm looking forward to the future more than anything," Rodriguez said. "I'd like to host tournaments and seminars here. I'd like to make the sport popular in this area and I think that the more you bring the tae kwon do community together, the better it is for the kids."